China's top judge says the country saw a double-digit increase in the number of terrorism and separatism cases last year, and that more than 700 individuals were convicted.
In an annual report to the National People’s Congress, Zhou Qiang, the chief justice of China’s Supreme People’s Court said Chinese courts carried out prosecutions for 558 cases last year. He said the number of convictions increased by about 15 percent and cases of terrorism or separatism grew by a little more than 13 percent.
Zhou did not say where the majority of the trials took place or give a break down of the number of cases for terrorism or separatism, but China did see a sharp increase in violent attacks in its remote and restive region of Xinjiang last year.
Xinjiang has long been troubled by ethnic tensions between its Uighur Muslim group and the country’s Han majority.
Rights activists and exiled Uighur groups say it is the government’s repressive cultural and religious policies there that are fueling the unrest, but China says the spread of religious extremism is to blame.
Earlier this week, a top communist party official in Xinjiang warned that some extremists have even traveled overseas to join the Islamic State and recently returned home.
Xinjiang has typically led the rest of the nation in convictions related to crimes labeled as endangering state security. A broad grouping that includes crimes such as separatism, subversion and terrorism among others.
According to Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights advocacy group based in the United States, its own estimates and an annual Xinjiang report on court cases shows that while the number of cases of endangering state security in Xinjiang stayed flat at about 300, the number of criminal trials increased by 40 percent to more than 29,000.
The group said the anti-terrorism campaign launched by President Xi Jinping in May of last year “likely played a significant role in the increased law enforcement.”
In a statement released this week, the group also said that the significant increase in criminal trials indicates that even without an increase in terrorism and separatism trials, the figures highlight how authorities “heightened suppression of human rights activism and dissent in Xinjiang.”
According to figures released in the annual Xinjiang court report that Dui Hua cites, the number of cases for obstructing social administrative order doubled to more than 4,500. A category of crime that can be used to “target unauthorized Islamic and Christian groups or ‘cults, Dui Hua said. The crime includes activities such as distributing religious materials and demonstrations.
Trials related to citizens personal and democratic rights nearly doubled to 7,500. Such cases could be applied to those who spread information that “tarnishes” China’s ethnic harmony, Dui Hua said, citing challenges to government bans on beard, veils and religious observance as examples.
Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi has banned the wearing of veils. Other cities in the region have placed restrictions on Islamic dress. Xinjiang’s Turkic speaking Uighurs are mostly followers of the moderate Sunni Muslim sect.
Over the past year, the Chinese government has tried to shape its narrative In Xinjiang as one that targets extremism and not the ethnic group in particular, but concerns about its policies and approach persist.
On Wednesday, a United Nations rights investigator criticized China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, highlighting concerns about what he called “disturbing” stories of harassment and intimidation.
Speaking with reporters in Geneva on Wednesday, Heiner Bieledfeldt, special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief said China’s actions in Xinjiang were a “major problem.”
Bieledfeldt said that he had “heard very disturbing stories about harassment, for instance, intimidation during Ramadan - children in schools were expected to break their fasting on Ramadan."
He also said that his office has seen no progress in their request to conduct an official visit to China. The last time that was agreed to was in 2004.
Still, China’s top communist party official in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, told reporters earlier this week that the region is taking an open and transparent approach and called for patience when details in relation to cases were slow to be released.
Reporters are allowed to visit Xinjiang, but in the wake of attacks or unrest that the government quickly labels as acts of terrorism, journalists are routinely intimidated, followed and some times detained, making it almost impossible to get independent accounts in the wake of violent incidents.
There is also the problem of Chinese courts’ nearly 100 percent conviction rate. Officials say they are working to address the issue and there is a growing push to review past cases and make amends in a country where confessions extracted through torture are a concern.
In 2013, the Supreme People’s Court said that judges must rule out confessions extracted through torture, but the problem has not gone away.
In his remarks on Thursday, China’s top judge Zhou Qiang cited one miscarriage of justice that was recently overturned, the case of an 18-year old who was convicted and sentenced to death only to be confirmed innocent years later after the execution was carried out.
Zhou said in 2014, China’s courts reheard more than 1,300 cases and corrected a number of wrongful ones.
"With regard to miscarriages of justice, we deeply reprove ourselves and demand that courts at all levels draw profound lessons, and further strengthen the effective prevention of unjust and false cases and timely correction mechanisms,” he said.